Josh Buice recently tweeted, “You would never read your grandfather’s Last Will and Testament the way many preachers preach the text of Scripture.” This speaks to the importance of context. In a previous article, I discussed the significance of “canonical context” (determining the controlling message of the whole of Scripture). Let’s narrow the focus now to “book context.”
The book context seeks to determine the controlling purpose of a biblical author’s book (or letter, poem, etc). It asks, “Who is writing? Who is his audience? What circumstance prompted him to write? How did he organize (structure) his writing? And, ultimately, what is his single purpose for writing?”
A Good Example
Let’s say our preaching-text is John 21:1-14, a passage on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to by the Sea of Tiberias. First, we must determine John’s single purpose for writing his book in the first place. Once we discover that purpose, his reason for including this episode will become clear. Thankfully, John is kind enough to state his controlling purpose explicitly. John 20:30: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.
The reason John includes multiple post-resurrection appearances (including this one) is to build a case such that there is no compelling reason to deny it, and every compelling reason to believe it. He organizes his book around seven “signs” proving Jesus is the Messiah. The resurrection is the final and ultimate “sign.” This ultimate “sign” is designed to persuade the reader to believe that Jesus is the Christ . . . and that by believing you may have life.
Not every biblical author states it so plainly, but if we read a biblical book enough times, the overarching purpose will become clear. The meaning of our preaching-text, then, must come under the authority of the author’s controlling theme. If it doesn’t, something is wrong. Let me show you.
A Bad Example
A monster movement currently is raging called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). In short, they believe God has restored the office of apostle in present-times. Their stated premise is: These modern-day apostles will lead Christians to take over the world for Christ, largely by infiltrating the existing political structures. National Public Radio (NPR) has an eye-opening podcast with one of NARs founders, Peter Wagner, in which he laid-out the movement’s fundamental principles (Fresh Air podcast, NPR). It is fascinating and may seem far-fetched . . . until you realize one of their apostles, Paula White, was named a spiritual advisor to a sitting U.S. President. Indeed, I considered it a fringe movement until I found myself teaching in Africa. My African interpreter pulled me aside and whispered, “What you teach disagrees with what we have been taught.” I said, “What have you been taught?” He said, “God gave Christians dominion to take over the world.” NAR had beaten me to Africa.
NAR is corrupting churches primarily by shifting the emphasis of the church “from” grace (justification by faith alone) “to” works (Christian world dominion). They speak in terms of taking over the seven mountains of society: religion, family, education, government, arts/entertainment, media, and business. They don’t necessarily deny justification by faith: This is precisely why pinpointing their heresy is like trying to nail jello to a wall. What they do is downgrade it from its central place of prominence. In downgrading it, they shift the emphasis to dominion-works. That emphasis-shift produces a different (false) gospel. Ephesians 4:11 is the foundational verse upon which all other NAR philosophies rest: And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.
The NAR movement might seem appealing until we ask one critical question: “What is Paul’s controlling purpose in Ephesians?” Then, the NAR movement it begins to unravel.
Consider the Ephesian letter’s context. The congregations were an eclectic mix with a host of competing interests: (1) Jews/Gentile tensions; (2) converted Gentiles bringing their cultic influences into the church; and (3) imperial worship (“bowing the knee” to Caesar) competing with allegiance to Christ. Paul doesn’t state his controlling theme outright, but it comes into focus in how he frames his letter.
- Ephesians 1: We all are predestined in the same way.
- Ephesians 2:1-3: We all are sinners in the same way.
- Ephesians 2:4-10: We all are saved in the same way.
- Ephesians 2:11-22: We all are co-equal citizens in the same way.
By the time we get to chapter 4, Paul’s purpose is clear: To bring unity and order to congregations in Ephesus by rooting them in the gospel of justification by faith. He did so by addressing the church, not the culture. Ephesians 4:11 was designed–not to bring world unity and world order, but–to bring church unity and church order.
We can debate whether the office of apostle or prophet exists today, but what we cannot do is weaponize Ephesians 4:11 to justify a world takeover. Why? Because that meaning does not align under Paul’s controlling purpose in the letter. Worse, it contradicts it. It removes justification by faith from its position of primacy and replaces it with a false gospel centered on dominion-works.
NAR feeds on the fleshly notions of power and status, which is why it is so alluring to many. A simple study of “book context” would have spared many from the travesties the NAR has wrought.
Thielman offers a thorough work explaining those complexities. See Frank Thielman, Ephesians, (Baker Exegetical: 2010), 19-28.